The Secret Ingredient You Should Be Using In Your Spaghetti Sauce

Cracking open a jar of marinara sauce and throwing a pack of spaghetti into a pot of boiling water is one of the easiest ways to make a meal during a busy work week, but sometimes the jarred sauce coating our pasta is lacking in flavor. Even a batch of homemade sauce you've spent hours on can be disappointing in the flavor department, missing a certain something you just can't put your finger on. So, naturally, you turn to a secret ingredient to save that day. There are plenty of so-called secret ingredients out there that promise to make any and all spaghetti sauce taste better, but one of the more surprising of those is instant coffee. Yes, really.

The trick garnered attention when British grocery store Sainsbury's featured an ad campaign that suggested adding instant coffee to spaghetti bolognese (via Sainsbury's). They recommend dissolving a teaspoon of instant coffee in chicken or beef stock, then adding it to your spaghetti sauce. "It actually adds more of a depth of flavor than a strong coffee taste," they explain. It turns out coffee doesn't just help homemade sauce taste better, either. Home cooks say they also add coffee to their jarred sauces for an instant flavor boost. 

To get a better idea of why instant coffee makes sense as a tomato sauce add-in, Buzzfeed UK reached out to Sainsbury's directly. According to their Head of Consumer PR for Food, "It may sound unlikely but it really works... The coffee adds an underlying depth of flavor that helps to balance the sweetness of the tomato-based ragu." 

If using instant coffee makes you turn up your nose, you can try using brewed coffee, too, which according to one cook lends "a touch of bitter flavor" that actually highlights the sweetness of the other ingredients, like sautéed onion and carrot, in your sauce (via First For Women).

It does sound strange, but famous chefs have been known to add similar flavors to their spaghetti sauce. Ana Sortun of Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts says that she adds cocoa powder to her pasta sauce, because it gives it "a complex, meaty taste." Cocoa powder and instant coffee have a similar flavor profile, so one could imagine that coffee could do the same (via Rachael Ray Magazine).

As for coffee and meat sauce, Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia might approve — one of his cooking secrets is adding coffee to the cooking liquid when making braised meats, because "it lends a smoky, roasted flavor," something that plain tomato sauce is certainly lacking.

Scientifically, there may be a reason why coffee, whether brewed or instant, can add so much complexity to otherwise simple recipes like pasta sauce. The process of harvesting, aging, and roasting coffee beans creates hundreds of different chemical compounds that our taste buds and nose interpret as different flavors and aromas. The main flavors that coffee professionals look for when evaluating beans fall into five categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (via A&E Coffee & Tea). 

While the sweetness of coffee can help tame acidic and salty recipes, the savory flavor compounds can enhance the umami of whatever dish you're cooking. The savory flavor is created by the glutamic acid present in coffee beans, thanks to the yeast that develops as the beans ferment in processing. Glutamic acid is also present in savory foods like Parmesan cheese, tomato paste, and kombu, all of which also add depth of flavor to dishes (via Serious Eats). 

After the beans are aged and processed, they're roasted. Roasting caramelizes the beans via the Maillard Reaction, which is also what happens when you roast or pan-fry foods (via Science of Cooking). The naturally occurring sugars in the bean caramelize and get that toasty flavor we're all so familiar with. 

Once coffee is done roasting, it contains more than 800 chemical compounds that can smell buttery, nutty, like soy sauce, baked potato, and even meat. That explains why, even though we're so used to drinking it as a breakfast beverage or mixing it with milk and pumpkin-flavored syrup to make a seasonal latte, coffee can also be used to enhance and deepen the flavors of savory foods like pasta sauce. 

Adding coffee to your spaghetti sauce may sound scary, but try it — you might be surprised.